My unusual work travel destinations often take me to some of the less traveled corners of the United States. Most recently, one of my projects has me taking several trips to South Bend, Indiana, a region (“Michiana”, in the local parlance) that I hadn’t actually visited since the late 1990s. South Bend itself is a bit of a difficult destination: the downtown area is one of those classic Midwest industrial cities that hit their heyday around WWII (with Bendix and Studebaker having extremely large plants there), but they’ve been in a state of decline since the 1960s: the downtown area is filled with all sorts of abandoned industrial buildings. But the area is also supported decently by University of Notre Dame (north of town in their own municipality of Notre Dame, IN). So it’s a mixed bag. Despite some of the economic challenges, the region has several things going for it. First of all, it’s actually a rather good region for beer, with quite a few beers from Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan being ubiquitous in local bars and restaurants. It’s very easy to find even fairly rare beers from such well-regarded breweries as Bells and Founders, and the region itself has several good local breweries, including Bare Hands , Iechyd Da (Elkhart), and the nationally famous Three Floyds. But while it’s a very, very good beer destination, I’m still figuring out the food scene. My first stab at figuring out the local food scene was a popular Celtic pub downtown that caters to the Notre Dame scene, Fiddler’s Hearth.
When my brother moved to London back in 2008, I thought it was neat that the building he lived in had a pub right downstairs. Problem was, that particular pub, the Pimlico Tram, was actually a lousy pub with a not terribly great clientele. But then something marvelous happened: the Pimlico Tram closed, and instead pub owner Martin Hayes refurbished the place and re-opened it as the Cask Pub and Kitchen. And, practically overnight, the lousy pub downstairs became the hip new pub downstairs, with a particularly good selection of British and imported beers, eight hand-pulled handles, and a reasonably good selection of pub grub. And starting that year, they’ve continued a run of excellence, with several awards including multiple winnings of The Publican Magazine Pub of the Year, Great British Pub Awards’ Best Cask Ale Pub in London, and CAMRA’s West London Pub of the Year. Enough so that I can’t even keep track of it. Meanwhile, they’ve been expanding, including more beers on tap, and, more importantly, sister pubs, with several locations of the Craft Beer Co open throughout Greater London (Craft is basically the same concept as Cask, but without the food). I hadn’t reviewed Cask before, since I generally don’t review pubs unless there’s something particularly notable about them or their food, and, quite frankly, I hadn’t been terribly impressed by Cask’s pub food in the past. However, starting in 2012, Cask significantly re-tooled their menu. On Sunday nights they still do the traditional “Sunday Roast”, but the rest of the week their kitchen transforms into Forty Burgers.
Our next day in London, we decided to do the tourist thing. Out in East Greenwich, Emirates Airlines built the Emirates Air Line, a cable car from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks. It’s a bit of an odd transit option, connecting two points that normal people nor tourists usually need to go between, but it’s also shockingly high and gives a great view of the city. We also used it as an excuse to take the Thames Clipper river boat service to get there, which was a surprisingly pleasant and efficient way to get from downtown London (Millbank Pier) to Greenwich. On the way back, we were hungry, so we decided to stop off in Greenwich and check out the Gipsy Moth, a modest pub that’s near both Greenwich Pier and the Cutty Sark.
Despite being one of the smaller European countries, Belgium has a rather extensive beer brewing and drinking culture that goes back centuries. As a result Belgium is rather famous as one of the world’s top beer countries, and the Belgian beer styles are getting increasingly popular in other countries as well. With several hundred Belgian brews available, you are never far from a beer bar most anywhere in a Belgian city, and in Brussels, our rental flat was just down the street from one of the more regarded ones, À la Mort Subite. It was our first destination upon arriving in Brussels (after a short walking tour), and, on our last evening in Belgium, it was also one of our last, since we all decided another trip to À la Mort Subite was in order.
After our most succesful trip to Husavik for whale watching, we headed back down to the Myvatn area. It started to rain pretty heavily, but we still had a nice hike through Dimmuborgir. After seeing many cool lava formations, and be regaled with the stories of the Yule Lads. After some reading up on it from the various signs at Dimmuborgir, I learned that the Yule Lads are the result of a head-on collision between old Norse and Christian traditions: the Yule Lads are the sons of the mountain trolls (Grýla). Unlike the Grýla themselves (who search out and scare naughty children), the Yule Lads only come at Christmastime, and are more mischievous than anything else: they have names like door-slammer (Hurðaskellir), bowl-licker (Askasleikir), sausage-swiper (Bjúgnakrækir), and meat-hook (Ketkrókur, he looks down chimneys and steals roasting meat with a long hook). The supposed way to get the Yule Lads to leave you alone is for your parents to give you lots of clothing at Christmas. I swear I’m not making this up, this is from the signs at Dimmuborgir! But after all that hiking, we were again a bit wet, a bit tired, and really wanted some dinner. While Vogafjós almost lured us in again, we decided to mix it up and try another of the area’s (very few) restaurants, Gamli Bærinn, a pub located next to the Hótel Reynihlíð.
After a pleasant morning touring the various tourism sites of Port Huron, MI (the Edison Depot Museum, the Lightship Huron, and the Gratiot Lighthouse park, amongst others) we decided it was time for a late lunch. Luckily, just south of the Black River on Huron Street, the Raven Cafe sits in a rather old building (dating from approximately the time of the Civil War). Billing itself as the “cultural, musical and culinary Mecca in the heart of Port Huron”, it’s actually a very nicely appointed bar, one of those places where the people decorating it seem to have turned the “eclectic” knob to 11. But it’s got a very nice old wooden bar downstairs, some very nice loft seating upstairs, a small outdoor balcony, and an odd little indoor balcony only accessible via ladder from the entryway for band performances. It’s certainly got a little bit of charm. We grabbed a nice table outside where we could look over at the old lift bridge over the Black River as well as some of the boats docked on Quay Street…
One of the more interesting aspects of London is that there are so many good pubs, it can be difficult to experience them all. When we’re visiting London, we’re generally rather spoiled, as my brother and sister-in-law live almost next to the very excellent Cask Pub and Kitchen (which I haven’t reviewed here, since I’ve only ever had bar snacks for food there). The good part of this is that a quality pub with a very good selection of beer is almost always at hand. The down side of this is that I tend to ignore a lot of other good pubs, even ones that are just down the street. One case in point is The Queen’s Arms, which is just down the street from the flat, but until this trip I had only been in there once, and that for a quick pint. Our trip to London, however, was also coincident with my friends Rick and Sarah’s trip to London/Wales/Ireland, and they in particular enjoy getting together with friends from Metafilter (I’m semi-active there as well) for spontaneous meetups. So it was decided that their visit to London was the perfect excuse for a meetup on December 27th. Alas, much of London is shut down around the festive season, with publicans in particular using it as a good opportunity to take a well-earned break from their normal routine. So many of the pubs around Pimlico, including my well-loved Cask, were closed on the 27th. But Queen’s Arms was open, so the meetup was scheduled there instead. I’m rather glad it was, since this finally represented a good opportunity to check out the Queen’s Arms.
Our next stop in England was going to visit my brother’s in-laws’ new house in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. After a ~2 hour train ride across England, the train enters into a tunnel and emerges into the rolling hills of Gloucestershire. After being picked up in Stroud by my brother’s father-in-law (Paul, who I will refer to now by name to avoid saying that phrase over and over) and settling into their house in Sheepscombe, they invited us out for a pleasant walk in the country as we made our way to one of the local pubs, the Woolpack, down the road in Slad.
During our trip to the UK, we took a side trip up to the walled city of York. We rather enjoyed the city, with nice walks around the city wall, touring York Minster, shopping, and checking out the original “shambles”. However, one of the things York is known for is having one of England’s highest number of pubs per capita, with all sorts of pubs distributed through the city. Nicely located just about 100 yards from York Minster, and just about as close to the B+B at which we were staying, the Three-Legged Mare pub is a York Brewery pub…